Plus ça Change…

From my journal when I was 14:

A friend of mine and I have noticed something. It isn’t very original, but some things just have to be discovered by yourself. This is it; if you think a guy doesn’t like you, you like him, but if you think he likes you, you don’t like him. Why? It’s weird. 

Special Lady Time, Part II.

The next morning, as I waited for my results, I figured one of two scenarios was most likely:

A. They would call and say, “After all that radiation, discomfort, and expense, we didn’t find anything.” This would certainly be the most annoying turn of events, so it was the one I was preparing myself for mentally.

B. They would call and say, “You have a cyst on your right ovary.”

As luck would have it, it turned out to be B. I had a 3 centimeter ovarian cyst, which would explain the pain, nausea, and other good stuff.

Oh! And, while CT scans are best for most imaging, it turns out that ovaries really like Ultrasounds. And Ultrasounds, unlike CT scans, are free with my insurance. And have no downsides. Which made me wonder:

Why didn’t they Start with an Ultrasound?

But I can’t think that way. Only madness results in thinking that way.

I was excited for my ultrasound on Thursday, and wondered if I should hop on the facebook bandwagon usually reserved for impending birth, and post my ultrasound.

I decided to name my cyst “Timmy.”

Special Lady Time.

This was a special week at Sofi Labs, a magical time henceforth to be known as Meet Your Deductible Week. In addition to going to a Very Fancy Specialist Doctor who doesn’t take insurance,*  I awoke on Wednesday with a painful twinge in my lower right side.

Now, since the lower right side has a bunch of stuff in it, including the incredible exploding appendix,** I went over to the local walk-in clinic. “It’s not appendicitis,” said the nurse practitioner dude. “But you really need to get a CT scan.”

I was all, “Hey, can I not get a CT scan and just, you know, save it for later?” and he was all, “Nope.”

At the CT scan place, a nice lady at the front desk started explaining to me exactly why, even with my fancy-shmancy health insurance, I would still be paying $500 out of pocket. She spoke sentences that were probably intended to be English, like, “So we’re taking 50% of your deductible, after we deduct what you’ve already paid, and then of course that’s the agreed-upon rate, and then we take 20% above that thanks to the 80-20 calculation.”

I got in close to her and said, “Look, I’m good at math. I took Calculus. And I don’t understand a word you just said.”

She started again, from the beginning. At last, I understood how — in a parallel universe where everything is hopelessly complex — one might be able to say I owed $500 today. I was certainly not happy that it was all so baffingly complicated,*** but I was satisfied enough for now. I took my seat.

At that point, the nice technician gave me a large cup of liquid. It was a contrast dye, so that my insides would show up better on the CT scan.

It didn’t seem so bad, in the beginning. They’d mixed it with Crystal Light®, and the taste wasn’t awful. But somehow, as I drank, it got harder and harder to get it down. I felt like Dumbledore drinking that bottomless liquid in Voldemort’s cave. (Sans zombies.)

I had 2 hours to kill in the waiting room while the contrast dye worked its way into my bloodstream. In vain, I searched for a People or even a Hello!, but they only had hyperspecific medical journals, so I had to curl up with Separation of Conjoined Craniopagus Twins: A Case Study. The article showed step-by-step diagrams of the process by which 2 twins joined at the head were eventually separated. The end showed both twins happy and relatively healthy, wearing special protective helmets. One assumes their skulls will be rebuilt once they stop growing.

Even after reading this informative article, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to separate conjoined twins in a pinch, but it passed the time.

At last, my two hours of waiting were up, and I went in to get the CT scan. The technicians were very nice, and except for that moment where I felt extremely weird when they injected me with dye (More Dye), it all went fine.


* “None of the good people take insurance these days,” I was assured by the office of another fancy specialist. So, this means that if you want to get medical care, you better A) pay for insurance, then B) pay for your deductible and then C) have another Large Stack of Money to pay out of pocket for the doctors who are actually good, in case  you actually want to get “better.”

** Funny story about the appendix. My friend once had emergency surgery for appendicitis, and when she awoke from surgery, her doctor said, “Congratulations! You had the Appendix of the Year!”

Turns out, her appendix had started to rupture, but then her right fallopian tube had reached over and twisted around the rupture to tie off her appendix.

This is when I realized, we really have no idea how the human body works at all. 

***  I’m reminded of the following quote, by P.J. O’Rourke:

“Beyond a certain point complexity is fraud … when someone creates a system in which you can’t tell whether or not you’re being fooled, you’re being fooled.”

Advice on the Ivies – Part III

Ok, here’s part III of my series, Advice on the Ivies. In this part, I’ll talk about step 5:

Take advantage of unique opportunities in Junior High and High School to give yourself a leg up

So what do I mean by that?

Well, let me give you an example. I remember hearing the same words, all throughout freshman orientation at Harvard, said from one freshman to another:

“Oh! I remember you! We went to CTY together!”

“What’s CTY?,” I asked. Turns out, it’s a kind of intensive summer nerd camp. It’s a place where kids with good test scores go, and meet each other, and work really hard. They get to surround themselves with other like-minded kids, and they also find out about opportunities for kids like them. And, experience shows, it pays off. A whole lot of Ivy League kids once went to CTY.

I’m not an expert on CTY, but here’s their website. It looks like they have scholarships available.

Places like CTY help to naturally feed people into good schools. The faculty there know about how the game of elite colleges works. In turn, they can help to steer students in the right direction.

What other experiences can do this? Well, there’s prep school. A good private school will prepare its students well, with excellent courses, and world-class college counseling. Of course, they cost as much as a fancy new car – every year. However, as with colleges, you can sometimes get a full ride if you meet their income qualifications. The best schools to apply to for this sort of thing are well-endowed schools like Andover, which promises needs-blind admission. That means, if you get in, they’ll pay whatever you can’t (at least, according to their calculations — which might be different than yours, so sometimes you have to haggle after you get your initial financial aid package).

The best situation to be in, scholarship-wise, is broke. Low income kids get a full scholarship. Rich kids have parents who can afford the tuition. It’s the folks in the middle that have trouble — because they really can’t afford those tuition bills either, but on paper, it might say that they can.

In addition to Andover, there are a bunch of elite northeast boarding schools, which basically make up the high-school equivalent of the Ivy League. There’s Exeter and Choate and St. Paul’s, Groton and Deerfield and…the list goes on. I’m not linking to them, because I trust you to have good Google Fu, young Grasshopper.

If you’re interested in private schools, most big cities have a few that are really strong. For example, in Austin, the two big ones are St. Stephen’s and St. Andrews. The sky’s the limit.

So. What other kinds of opportunities can help give you a leg up?

If full-time private school is out, you might try an intensive summer program at a private school or college.

Also, does your state have a Governor’s school, or something similar? These are public schools, for elite kids. You should also look into Magnet school programs in your area.

If you’re very strong in a subject area, you might be able to take classes at a local college while you’re still in high school.

And finally, don’t be shy. High school is a great time to go up to people and say, “How did you do what you did? How did you get what you have? I want to be like you.” Adults love that, and will talk to you for hours with advice.

Good luck!

Advice on the Ivies – Part II

Read Part I.

Ok, my advice for this post is:


Why am I featuring this advice so prominently? Because, if I were going to advise a kid who really, really wanted to get into the Ivies what to do, this would be my best advice. A hundred years ago, all the students at these schools took Latin and a lot of them took Greek. Then the students grew up and gave money back to their dear old Classics departments. But now Latin isn’t a requirement, and the result is that a lot of these schools have well-endowed Classics departments, and not enough students to fill them.

..At least, that was the situation when I went to these schools 20 years ago, and I’m pretty sure it’s still the case now.

So, what you do is, take Latin in high school. Your high school is not going to offer Ancient Greek, but You are Passionate About Classics! So try to find a local college professor and ask her to tutor you in Greek in the summer. Or ask if your school could give you credit for an independent study with her during the school year. Be an All-Classics-All-the-Time type of kid. Write on your application that you desperately love Classics and you want to major in Classics. You will have a huge leg up on the kid who’s taken 5 years of French.

This doesn’t mean you have to actually major in Classics when you get to college. Just that you intend to, at the age of 17. Kids change their major intentions all the time once they start college. But do check with your school, because there are a few programs across the country where you actually have to make a commitment before you start. These are rare, but it never hurts to read all the fine print regardless.

Three other points:

1. I am a strong believer in a Classical education. If you devote yourself to it, you’ll have an advantage for college admissions, but you’ll also be better prepared for education in general, and even for life. It gives you a really strong foundation in many ways.

2. While I do literally mean “take Latin and Greek,” you could also use this advice as an analogy. The reason it helps with elite colleges is because they have a lot of resources already invested in this area, and not enough students. Maybe there’s some other category that fits the same criteria. Maybe the school you want to go to has world-class Astronomy professors and not enough students in the major. Or they’ve got a huge squash program, but it’s hard to find enough students to fill it.

So if you do a bunch of research, and figure out that your top schools are all desperate for squash players, then by all means, play squash.

But also take Latin and Greek. Did I mention that I got into Harvard, Yale, and Brown? Yeah. That’s cause I took Latin and Greek. And was Good at it.

3. What if you’re a super genius in some other area? You’re already spending summers working in a graduate research lab? Should you stop and use that time for Greek?

No! If you’re already crazy-super-smart in some area, that’s your strength. The point is, to have something about you that makes colleges really want you to go to their school. If you already have that, focus on that strength. But if you’re regular-good-student-smart and you don’t yet have a special niche, this can be your niche that makes colleges want you.

Next: Part III. 

Advice on the Ivies – Part I

The world of elite schools seems impenetrable to those who don’t grow up around it. Worse, it can seem like the kids who go to places like Harvard are anointed with some kind of special golden blessing from God, and they are different from other mortals.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I went to Andover, and then I attended Harvard. In my experience, only about 5% of the kids at Harvard are what you’d call “scary-super-smart.” The rest are just smart, like all the hundreds and thousands of smart people you’ll meet over the course of your lifetime. What people who get into elite schools have in common, besides smarts and hard work, is being well-positioned. It’s hard to have AP classes on your high school transcript, if your high school doesn’t even offer AP classes…get it?

So, your task in junior high and high school is to work hard, get good grades, and also do what you can to get yourself well-positioned. 

At any rate, here is my advice for students who aren’t as familiar with the world of the Ivy Leagues:

1. Of course, get really good grades, but don’t freak out if it’s not 100% straight A’s. Still, it needs to be as close to that as possible.

2. Try to be ‘well-rounded” – academics, sports, and something else (like music or community service)

3. If possible, have one or more unique niche skills and interests


5. Take advantage of unique opportunities in Junior High and High School to give yourself a leg up

In this first post, I’ll talk about points 1 through 3: Get Good Grades, Be Well-Rounded, and Have a Special Niche.

Ok, so first: Get really good grades. That’s pretty self-explanatory, right? And of course, you want to take AP courses in the subjects you’re good at, and you want to have strong extra-curriculars to put on your resume. But it’s not quite that simple.

Places like Harvard get a ton of well-rounded (yet cookie cutter) kids with straight A’s who play the violin.** Your best bet is to make as good grades as you can, while also fostering whatever it is about you that makes you unique. The best position to be in, when applying to Harvard and company, is to be a great student, but also have at least one niche area where you’re truly exemplary.

What’s special about you could be something about your academics, athletics, or other interests. Like you’re a math genius, or a published poet, or a state champion in a sport.  Or you have an interest or talent that’s unusual. Let’s say you’re a boy who founded his own pastry company. Or, at 16, you’re a talented musician who specializes in playing 1920’s blues. Or you’re great at playing an obscure instrument, like Viola da Gamba.

Also, bear in mind that the elite colleges want to have a class that’s “diverse,” and so you may fit some demographic categories that give you an edge. (I put “diverse” in quotes because the vast majority of admissions are from economically comfortable backgrounds, so it ain’t all that diverse.)

These schools want students from all 50 states. If you live in states like Tennessee or Kentucky, you have a slight edge, because fewer kids apply from those states. If you live in states like New York or California, it’s a bit harder.

If you’re from a lower-income household, congratulations! Harvard gives a FULL RIDE to any kid whose family makes $65,000 or under. Some other Ivy League schools have similar programs. Plus, they actively *want* non-rich kids. So go ahead and apply. School application fees can be expensive, and they can add up. If you’re really strapped for cash, contact the school and find out what they can do about waiving application fees.

Also, the schools have other “soft” categories they’re trying to fill for each entering class, like,

– The quirky genius

– The prodigy we get to brag about it

– The jock who will help our football team be slightly less bad

– The person who actually has a soul (great community service or volunteer work, etc.)

So, to review: you should be an all-around great student, and then on top of that, have several things that make you special to them, and at least one talent where you truly stand out from the pack. Which leads us to Part II.


** When places like Harvard say, “We don’t just want more kids with perfect SAT’s who play the violin,” they mean, “We don’t want our schools to be 35% Asian.” All of these schools have their own problems, and this unacknowledged Asian quota is one of them.